I Am Nobody’s Freak Show

Published September 27, 2011 by Fat Heffalump

It happens to me all the time.  I’ll be walking across the square on my way home from work and I’ll see someone shift from photographing the building, to trying to sneak a photograph of me.  Or if I’m sitting alone in a café, quietly having my lunch on my own, (ESPECIALLY if I’m eating on my own) to escape from the noise of the office, when I’ll feel myself being observed, and spot someone trying to sneak a photograph of me from a nearby table with their mobile phone.  I’ve been sitting on the train or a bus, or at the platform/bus stop, when I’ve spotted someone surreptitiously moving the lens of their camera or phone towards me to sneak a picture.  On more than one occasion I’ve been watching the news and seen my own body, with my head cropped out, as a headless fatty on a news bulletin about the “obesity epidemic”.  And one horrible time, some years ago, a colleague I didn’t know very well discreetly came and told me that he had seen a photo of me on a website devoted to humiliating ugly people.  At the time, I was absolutely devastated.  These days I’d probably give him a serve for looking at such websites!

People think I’m stupid, that I can’t see when they’re aiming their cameras and mobile phones at me.  Others think I’m paranoid, imagining that people are photographing me in public, but several experiences of seeing myself as a headless fatty on the evening news (and once in a newspaper) and turning up on websites, is more than enough evidence.  I don’t imagine this shit and I’m not the only one it happens to.  How often do you see pop up on Twitter, someone posting a photo of a stranger they see on the bus or train or some other public place, saying “Check out this weird person?”  I’ve unfollowed all of the people who think it’s ok to do that, but occasionally a new one crops up.  Why are there sites like that Walmart one, or ones devoted to bad fashion, “weird” people or ugly people?

It’s because we live in a culture that thinks that just because they have a camera in their hand, they’re allowed to photograph people for the purpose of ridicule.

I’ve also had people suggest that these folks are taking my photo without my consent because “You’re awesome Kath.”  That is true, I am awesome.  But the people who think I’m awesome and want my photo have the decency to come and ask my consent.  That happens every now and again, someone will come up to me and say “I love your hair, could I take your photo?”  Or “Your outfit is so cool, can I get a picture of you?”

Sometimes people say to me “Well, perhaps if you didn’t cut your hair like that, or dye it bright colours, they wouldn’t photograph you.”  Sometimes they deem the way I dress being the reason for people photographing me.  But the thing is, no matter what the reason, be it my coloured hair, my bold style of dress, my fatness, my cropped hair, whether they think I’m ugly… no matter what reason someone is photographing me without my consent, doesn’t excuse them for doing it… without my damn consent and for the purpose of putting my photograph online or on the news or in the paper to ridicule.  “Oh but you make yourself so noticeable!” these people say.  I am not going to disappear, to hide away just to avoid rude people who feel the need to photograph anyone who looks different for the purpose of ridicule.  I don’t wear my hair the way I do, or dress the way I do to get attention.  I do it because those are the things I like.  I love coloured hair, I love bright clothes and unique style.  I make my appearance the way I do, because it pleases ME.

Having control over who photographs us and how we are represented in photographs is often seen as vanity or even self consciousness (the old “that’s not flattering” malarkey), but to me, it’s about having control over my identity.  It’s about ownership of my own body, appearance and identity.  People who just photograph others for their own amusement or to ridicule are treating the subjects they photograph as if they are public property.  No matter where we are, in public or in private, our bodies are our own property and we have every right to choose what happens to our bodies, including the photographing of them.

This is one of the reasons that I am really excited about working on a project with Dr Lauren Gurrieri of the Griffith University, which I will tell you more about when I can.  One of the components of the project is fat activists being photographed by a professional (and talented) documentary photographer.  I love the idea of choosing to be photographed on my terms, in places and settings that I feel represent me, by someone I feel comfortable with. 

It’s not going to be easy, handing over the reins to the photographer, even though I do trust him and have seen his excellent work.  It’s not easy for most people to relax and allow someone to photograph them going about their day (or even posing) because we’re conditioned to believe we’re horrible and that we need to vet every photograph taken of us.  But when you have people in the street thinking it’s funny to photograph you to show their mates or put on the internet for ridicule, or you’ve seen yourself decapitated on the evening news as a representation of something that needs to be cured/prevented/eradicated… well, you’ve got a whole lot of shit you’re carrying around to deal with that most people don’t have to.

But it’s also important to claim back my body for myself, and to not let the people who haven’t got a shred of basic respect for others to claim ownership of my identity.

It’s also important to call out this behaviour.  It’s not easy, but when we see our friends or family taking “sneaky” (they’re never sneaky enough to escape notice by the subject of the photograph, believe me, I notice) photos on their mobile phones and cameras, or posting things to their Facebook or Twitter to snark at them, we have to speak up.  We have to make sure that people know this kind of behaviour is unacceptable.

Because just because it isn’t us this time, doesn’t mean we won’t be the ones being photographed without our consent next time.

42 comments on “I Am Nobody’s Freak Show

  • I found your post very, very disturbing. Does anybody remember reading George Orwell’s 1984 in school? It was supposed to be about the way totalitarian society imposed its will on its subjects by constant surveillance, but it turns out that we’re the ones doing the bullying ourselves through the use of devices meant for entertainment.

    I had a thought. Have you thought about carrying a camera with you at all times and swinging it towards the people who are photographing you? No need to be surreptitious. Just point and click. They will find it very confronting. My sister got mugged once and kicked to the ground. The guy obviously thought she was helpless, but she got up and started running after him, screaming “I’ve seen your face!” and he nearly crapped himself. Telling someone you’ve caught them doing something wrong is the most terrifying thing you can do to them, and it might make them think twice about it in future.

    And they do know it’s wrong, or they wouldn’t try being surreptitious about it.

    • Alexie I have an iPhone, I’ve always got a camera on me! However the more I think about it, the more I feel the idea is just not right. To me, two wrongs don’t make a right.

      I have however confronted people, and I’m very adept at getting my raised middle finger in their shots!

      That said, some days I just don’t have the spoons to confront people. I just want to have my lunch, or walk to work, or whatever, without having to deal with some douchenozzle who thinks it’s acceptable to photograph me for shits and giggles.

      And you bet they know it’s wrong. Same with the “nudge and stare” people I rock up to and say “Can I help you?” when I catch them at it!

  • This makes me so very sad to read. I am obviously very oblivious to the world of fat-shaming/stigma. It makes me sad that my world endorses it at all. I guess I hoped we lived in a progressive enough society that individuality was appreciated & not ridiculed, especially not so obviously. My heart wrenches as I read this & I’m sorry you’ve been exposed to such awfulness. As Tina above has said, please never hide. You’ve no need to hide.

  • Oh Kath I don’t really know what to say as to be honest I have never heard of this weirdness going on. How dare these underlings take it uopn them themselves to judge and use other people’s images to ridicule them.
    I mean where does this thinking come from? I like the suggestion from Alexie, take their picture when you see them doing it to you, should make them think.

    I am sorry that people have hurt you. I am one of many who have come to respect and admire you. We all love you lady. 🙂

  • This is all so awful, but I do kind of love Alexie’s idea of taking THEIR pictures… maybe not even with film in the camera (or using a digital but not saving the images), but just to reverse the subject/object relationship and see how they feel!

  • Reading this, the thought I kept having was how awesome you are! If it wasn’t for the fact that these people who are taking your picture are complete douchenozzles, I would feel sorry for them that they never get to experience the amazing person you are, because all they see when they see you is your “weird” external qualities.

  • Another vote for Alexie’s solution. I’m betting these asshats have never had an awesome fatty call them on their asshattery before!

    And can I just send a mental boot to the head to people who think the answer is for us to stop being who we are and wearing what we like? It reminds me of when I was in high school. I used to wear a hat to school every day. It wasn’t against the dress code, and it wasn’t hurting anyone. But when I went into the library one day to find some references for a paper I was writing, these two boys yanked the hat off my head and started using it as a frisbee all over the library while I tried desperately to get it back. I still can’t believe that nobody in charge came over to quiet all the ruckus. After a couple minutes of fruitless racing and yelling, I went and informed the librarian (who was at her post and certainly had a clear view of the entire incident) that these boys had stolen my property and were hurling it all over the library. Her suggestion: Don’t wear a hat.

    Wow. That was going to do a lot of good while they were throwing MY PROPERTY hither and yon around the room and screaming at the tops of their lungs, disturbing anyone trying to get any work done or just have a few peaceful moments. It was my fault for wearing a hat, not theirs for stealing it and disturbing everyone in the room.

    And all these years later, just going about your business is STILL apparently plenty of excuse for people to abuse anyone they happen to think is weird. After all, if we conformed to their norm, they wouldn’t have to do something nasty to us.

    You know who else uses that kind of ‘logic’? Rape apologists.

    I haven’t had a lot of people take unauthorized pictures of me for the purpose of ridiculing me online or on television, but I’m definitely feeling your anger. It’s. Not. Okay.

    Good for you, taking control of your image! I look forward to seeing the resulting images, because I know that a good photographer can present the awesome lady in all that fabulous packaging. You rock, Kath.

    • Yup Twistie, it’s complete victim blaming, and nothing boils my blood quicker than victim blaming. If our culture spent as much time putting the onus on the perpetrator that we do on the victim, it would RADICALISE bullying and even crime levels. Completely change the face of our society.

      And thank you, I can’t wait to be able to share this project with you.

  • Girl – I have to say, sometimes I just get so discouraged.

    This article was front and center on my internet home page this morning: http://fitbie.msn.com/2011/09/26/do-americans-hate-fat-people-fight-prejudice-against-overweight?gt1=50002

    What are we suposed to do? I try so hard just to hold my head high and be myself, but it wears on me to know that I am being looked at like I am a freak. I have never seen anyone taking photos of me and I would be SO pissed off if I did. We are the chosen “hate” group of this decade. It’s ridiculous!

    And the comments on the article….the people that assume staying thin is so easy and that we’re making excuses for our weight because we’re too lazy to eat right and exercise. Damn, I’d like to see them try to hang with me for one of my (past) hard core, 3-5 year extreme diet and exercise programs. Just to stall out and be unable to finish losing enough weight to reach my goal. Let’s see how these holier-than-thou people handle that one! It’s not for wimps, as you well know! I refuse to live like that anymore – for what? To feel like shit just so they can accept me. Screw them!

    I have got to get some more fashionable clothes – unfortunately, don’t have the money right now, but when I do, I’m going to kick it up a notch and try not to hide in my baggy black clothes.

    Thanks for sharing and for being so brave out there. You are an inspiration!

    • La, the only thing we can *always* do is to turn to each other. For support, commiseration, understanding and righteous anger! Sometimes we have the sanity points to take it on, sometimes we don’t, sometimes we just can’t formulate the response. Our power is in our community.

      And than you hon.

  • It’s quite creepy to think of how many candid photos of ourselves are really out there. One day a couple weeks ago, my boyfriend and I walked into IHop and the guy, about 18, was sitting there filming us with his camera phone. We had to stop to wait to be seated and the guy kept moving his phone and pointing the lens every time we moved. It was weird. Finally my boyfriend asked him to stop filming us or he would give him a show worth watching on youtube. The guy sneaks off outside with his friend…

    I’m sorry you have endured such things that have been so much worse than my IHop experience. I encourage you to confront them right then and there.

  • I asked hubby, who’s a semi-pro photographer and fairly well up on UK law in this area, whether we had any legal protection from this behavior. The answer is probably not.

    Over here, it’s legal to take photos in a public place, including people who happen to be there. (Note: shopping malls and stores are not, strictly, public, and some of them ban all photography – so alerting a store security guard might be worth a go…) If you plan to sell a photo with an identifiable individual in it, you should obtain the person’s written permission. But headless fatty shots get round it by assuming this makes someone unable to identify themselves (which as you and others have found, Kath, isn’t necessarily true). And posting photos for heartless mockery online doesn’t require that release anyway.

    Again, there’s defamation. If a photo shows an identifiable person, implies they’re doing something bad that they didn’t actually do, and they can be shown to have suffered real, tangible loss or damage because of it, that is illegal and they can sue. Say, you take a photo of a store front where looting is going on, like what happened here a few weeks back, and a random innocent bystander gets identified in the local paper by his boss and loses his job because of it – he could sue. But again, in the fatty shots, one, they’re headless or reduced to a stomach; two, as many people here have experienced, it’s rather hard to prove to the satisfaction of fat haters that any given fat person, or fat people in general, don’t overeat/avoid exercise/drain the healthcare system/whatever the accompanying article claims. Or to prove how much our lives are made a misery because of this crap.

    (This is the law on photos people take themselves. When someone steals a photo you or a friend took of you and posts it online, that’s straightforward breach of copyright, but plenty of sites don’t even police that the way they should.)

    I would love to see someone try and take on the haters in court, but tightening existing laws will hamper decent pro photographers, and not do much about the douches, who mainly use their mobile phones and are less conspicuous. Really, what it’ll take is a sea-change of attitude, for people to realize that using images of other people to mock and belittle them isn’t acceptable. But while we live in the point-and-laugh culture we have right now, I’m sceptical of how fast that might happen.

    Failing that, a line of T-shirts that say something like ‘This fat person does not give you permission to use their photo’ (OK, I’m sure you can all think of something much more catchy)? But then again, why should we have to resort to tactics like that?

    • Photography laws in Australia are similar: you can take a photo of anyone in public and do anything you like with the photo except defamatory stuff or using their image to sell or endorse something. So you can take a photo of someone in a public place and sell that photo in a gallery or similar, without the person’s permission. But legal and ethical aren’t necessarily the same thing. There’s a world of difference between some random taking a photo of someone for the lulz or to mock them on the internet, and a street photographer who takes respectful photos because the people in them are interesting. And an ethical street photographer will be open about the photos they take and happy to talk to you about them, stop photographing you/delete the photos if you object, etc, instead of skulking around and getting defensive if you challenge them.

      I wonder if any defamation-type cases have been brought or won in Australia against the douchecanoe kind of “photographer” if they’ve published the photos somewhere.

  • I am a firm believer in people owning the copyrite of their own bodies. I seriously cannot understand how there are not laws on this subject. I don’t think anybody should be able to publish the image of anyone without their permission. Even celebs!

    • I just thought I’d jump in on this one. There are lots of freedom of speech issues around this, that balance public and private goods. In parts of Europe, you can’t photograph anyone without their permission and people are also allowed to control the way their words are used as well. Sounds good, except what it means is that politicians and crooks can completely control their own image for propaganda purposes. Someone snaps a picture of a child molester being sentenced? The photographer can be charged. Someone wants to do a story about the criminal down the road who is committing fraud against his customers? Well, you’ll never get the guy’s permission for that. Someone interviews a politician? They will never get another interview if they don’t allow the person being interviewed to control how the interview is published – which means the electorate get nothing but spin doctoring and propaganda. The laws in Australia are that you can’t use images and so on to bring someone into disrepute. If Kath can identify herself on television, then she could have a case for having been defamed or brought into disrepute.

      Obviously it’s terrible if someone can be mocked and vilified in this way, but the alternative – censorship – is worse. In any case, given the ubiquity of digital devices and the ease of posting anonymously on the net, laws would be useless for the ordinary citizen. It’s better to try and change people’s behaviour by making such actions socially unacceptable.

  • I saw this post come up in my feed this morning and have been waiting all day to have a chance to read it. Kath, you ARE awesome. And VERY inspiring. I am so sorry that you’ve had to go through this. I can’t even imagine how awful it would be to see your own headless body on the news for an OMGBESITY! story. I’ve never noticed anyone taking my photo without my consent, but I get tense even thinking about it and would be asbsolutely furious (and would probably go along with everyone else’s suggestion to point MY camera on MY phone back at them). If *I* saw you I would want a picture with you too because you are awesome and have cool tattoos, hair, etc. Please move promptly to Washington DC so that we can make it happen. 🙂

    • Thank you Jerome. I will get back to the US and I will come and visit Washington DC when I do, just to meet up with you!

      It’s bloody infuriating to see your own body crop up on a ZOMGBESITY story, and I think the next time it happens, I will be sure to file formal complaints with the station and any other relevent authorities.

  • You probably have it worse there since fat people are rarer. I bet if I went to Australia at my weight, they’d be going nuts. It is sad you can’t go down the street without harrassment. Do you live in a big city? When I lived in a huge city, the staring and catcalls were far worse. I do not post pictures of myself on my blog, because I do not want to show up on some fat-haters website, though they would get much since I dress mostly in long dresses. You need to take their pictures, when they photograph you, guess this is only way you can deal with it. A headless fatty [picture would offend me greatly. I do not shop at Walmarts unless there is no other choice-hate Walmart–but if I did, would be petrified someone would take my picture to put it up on one of those snotty narcissistic mock the “proletariat” [ie poor people] of America websites because I am so fat. One thing as I got older, I was left more alone, don’t know if that will bring you much hope. Do you dress goth or anything that may bring more eyeballs? Not saying you have to change your dress style, but just wondering….

    • I wouldn’t say that fat people are more rare here than they are in any western culture, I’d say the ratios are about the same probably. I’m certainly no special unicorn, I see plenty of bodies each day that look something line mine.

      I used to not post pictures of myself online because I thought they’d be used inappropriately, but the thing is, people took them of me in the street anyway. I’d rather photos online that I consented to being taken than those I didn’t.

      And how anyone dresses, what they look like at all, shouldn’t mean they “draw more eyeballs”. I have a friend with NF – short of staying at home, there is no way she can avoid people seeing her condition. This isn’t about the victims, it’s about the perpetrators – they’re the ones who should be questioned about their behaviour. People need to get over others looking different and behave like adults. Mind you, not even children are that rude.

  • Thank you for writing this post, Kath. I remember when we spoke months ago you telling me about your own “headless fatty” experiences. It sickens me like little else in this world. The point to which society has found itself impotent in the power of it’s own endless judgment. We all created or contributed to it, but few of us are brave enough to fight it! I am rarely surprised by the incessant judgment, but I do what I can in my life to change it, to fight it and to call it out. This is what makes you such an amazing activist, you’re willing to tell your story (like your last post, thank you) and expose the bastards for what they are: Ignorant cowards!
    The more of us who stop judging ourselves, our bodies, soon that non-judgment will turn it’s eyes outward and stop judging others, too! It’s a tough battle, but I know we can do it! Never stop being you, Kath! I love you too much! ❤

    • Thank you hon!

      The first step to changing judgmental attitudes in the world is to let go of them ourselves. Once we stop judging ourselves and others, it shows us the world through a different lens.

  • I’m puzzled and disgusted by the concept of photographing any individual candidly, whether the subject becomes the object of derision or desire. It unnerves me, and yet for some reason our culture openly accepts and encourages such weird practices, and it is just one more issue that leaves me completely baffled.
    I have never experienced anything quite like this (to my knowledge!), nor did I really understand the extent to which it went on, so I’m glad you brought it to light.

    Next time you spy someone doing this, I would suggest springing to your feet and doing a fucking pirouette. But seriously, when folks have to stoop to this level of idiocy just to grab a few laughs or to boost their self worth through spouting the OMG! I’m thinking of your health bullshit, it simply goes to show that fat (aka the new satan) isn’t the fucking problem.

  • I am always terrified, if I watch the news and they feature an “obesity epidemic” story, that I will see my headless body in the crowd. So far I haven’t; the blessings, I suppose, of living in a small/country town.
    However this phenomenon of taking photos or videos of unsuspecting people frightens me more. I have never noticed if people do this to me… I don’t actually leave the house all that often so there wouldn’t be many opportunities. I do cringe though, walking into a cafe or a movie theatre, from the looks and the stares and whispers. They are bad enough, but to contend with those AND cameras would honestly be the social death of me. I’m not sure I would EVER leave the house.
    I take my hat off to you, Kath, your bravery and confidence is inspiring! You give me the strength to be able to say “I’m okay, I’m worthy, I’m important”.
    Thank you

  • I concur with Alexie – take their pic & sing out that will go great on my website – if they question you you question them – that’s all things being equal & you’re feeling equipped to attack douche baggery at that time – I can only admire your unreal attitude to calling out this appalling behavior as you do

  • Yes, I’ve had it happen to me, too – I was published in the local newspaper with a head but from the back as an illustration to a story on alcoholism and depression! I live in a very small town and have never had anything like that happen here, but I do often travel to bigger towns, and it happened in one of those. And I was dressed in plain jeans and a t-shirt – it’s not about the clothes!

  • As a foreigner living abroad in a mostly homogenous (physically) society, this happens ALL THE DAMN TIME. It’s probably some combination of my skin color, height, weight, and oddball fashion sense. If it’s a kid taking the picture, I’ll let it pass usually, or even pose – but the older the person taking the picture, the more likely I am to turn away, put my hand in the way, make a rude gesture, etc.

    Although taking the picture of the picture taker might be an effective deterrent sometimes, wouldn’t it be absolutely hypocritical?

    • I agree, I would find it the “two wrongs” kind of thing, to take someone’s picture. I don’t believe in reducing myself to mirror the behaviour of a wrongdoer. Instead, I’ll strategically place my middle finger in the shot!

  • OMG … I was literally talking about this with someone on the bus this afternoon. This, sadly, has happened to me too but not in any subversive way. I have caught teens on several occasions doing this. I am sick of it so I’m fighting back now. Like you said, they seem to think we don’t notice, but we do. One time I was on the bus to work and caught a kid angling his phone at me and I heard the noise of a camera so I knew he what he had done. I turned around, got my phone out and took a picture of him. I have it to this day and I know what school he attends so if I ever come across that picture of me online, of me sitting on a bus, wearing what I was wearing I have evidence of the photographer. I’ll be doing this every time I catch one of those little b*stards taking a picture of me. Well, they do it so why can’t I?

    Going after them for defamation is the only recourse. Hey, the celebs can sue so what’s to stop us from doing it too?

    I have also been advocating against those ‘Walmart’ emails people love to email me at work. I always reply to the sender (sometimes I hit ‘reply all’ if I know all the addressees) saying that I have been a victim of being photographed without my permission for the purposes of ridicule (just as most of the people in the photos have been), ask them how they would feel if it were them and not to send emails like that to me anymore. I now send ‘Anti-Walmart’ emails around featuring animal photobombs, lolzcatz, etc

    I can’t wait to hear more about the UQ project. Keep up the fabulous work you are doing 🙂

  • Taking a picture back – great idea! Just make sure you don’t get pummeled or hit – the kind of people who enjoy laughing at others tend not to have much of a sense of humour when it is turned on them…who woulda thunkit?

  • I remember going out to dinner once with my family. I was sick so I didn’t feel like eating but my father ordered me a chicken soup. My hair was a mess, I wore a big jacket, and slouched, staring at the bowl of soup with disgust when two young people walked in. A young couple walked in. One looked very male but, with a second look, I noticed she was female. She kissed the other girl and I smiled to myself. They sat at the bar, the table my family was sitting at was behind them and to the right.

    I went back to staring at my soup, sipping some of it out of the warm spoon now and then, and watching my family eat. Later, I glanced up and saw the young lady (the one who looked like a boy) smiling at me. A genuine smile.I figured that maybe she knew me from school and I didn’t recognize her. I smiled back, searching my brain for who she was. Next thing I know, I see my image in the view-finder of her phone as she blatantly points it at me and takes a picture.

    I was shocked. I looked down nervously. Every time I looked up she had her phone pointed at me. Sometimes she would lean back and kiss her companion or smile and whisper something and nod to me. It threw me for a loop. I didn’t know what to do and I didn’t feel well enough to do anything. Finally she put her phone away, but kept looking at me.

    She watched me leave with my family but never said anything to me.

    Whether it was because I’m fat or looked bad, I don’t know… But it was one of the creepiest moments of my life.

  • I think photographing others without their consent, whether surreptitiously or openly, is inappropriate, invasive, rude AND creepy….not to mention that posting such photographs should be illegal unless the subject has signed a release form.

    I get this crap all the time “If you didn’t have many tattoooos you wouldn’t have this happen to you.” “If you didn’t look so androgynous you wouldn’t have this happen” “If you didn’t wear weird shoes…” etc/etc/etc. Why does expressing myself give others the right to treat me as an object of ridicule? It shouldn’t, but it does…almost every day. I’d love a follow up post on how to respond to people not only taking photographs, but asking rude and invasive questions about your appearance (for instance, “Can you lift up your bellbottoms a litle so I can see how tall your shoes are?” Me: “NO.” Them: “Please?” Me: “If you want to know how short I “really” am, just ask.” Them: I didn’t mean.. Me: “Yes you did.” Them: “You’re a bitch/cunt/insert anti-female insult here”.

  • I have hoped that should I find myself having someone try to take a picture of me for a headlessnfatty shot, that I’d be able to catch them and flip them the bird rendering their picture useless. >:)

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